Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

Like a Sister is an engrossing novel that will definitely appeal to fans of Rachel Howzell Hall. Solid pacing, a likeable and engaging narrator, plenty of compelling dialogues, and a well-rendered suspenseful atmosphere. I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked this one up was because I came across the audiobook version while perusing Bahni Turpin’s audios . As per usual, she gives a brilliant performance which no doubt enhanced my reading/listening experience with Like a Sister.

Our main character is Lena Scott, a graduate student at Columbia who is in her late twenties. After her grandmother passes away she inherits her house in the Bronx, which she now shares with her aunt. Her mother is dead, and Mel, her father, a big shot music producer with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation, has shown little interest in Lena. After their ‘messy’ separation he went on to marry and have a child with a former close friend of her mother. Despite the animosity between their parents, Lena and Desiree were ‘like sisters’. Despite their different home environments, with Desiree enjoying Mel’s wealth, Lena leads a more sheltered existence, focusing on her studies. Eventually, Desiree gains certain popularity, having taken part in a reality show and hanging out with ‘it’ crowds. Her partying lifestyle becomes a wedge in the sisters’ relationship, as Lena can’t condone Desiree’s careless ‘misdemeanours’. After years of not talking to each other Lena learns that Desiree has been found dead the morning after her 25th birthday. The media and police are quick to dismiss her death as an accidental ‘overdose’, but Lena is more x. Why was her sister found in the Bronx? Was she on her way to see her? Mel and Lena’s stepmother do not seem as troubled as she is by the inconsistencies of Desiree’s death. Lena feels guilty over her fallout with Desiree and is determined to find the truth. As she reaches out to Desiree’s ex and her friends she begins to suspect that her death may have something to do with the ‘event’ that led to their fallout. Reluctantly Lena is aided by Desiree’s bff, a white rich girl who serves as a source of humor for much of the early narrative.

I liked the dynamic between Lena and the people she interacts with. I think the story would have benefited from giving her more of a backstory. She seems to have only one acquaintance and 0 friends. I kept forgetting what her profession/subject of study was because her character is very much all about Desiree and Mel. That is not to say that she doesn’t have a clear-cut personality. She is loyal, sensible, and funny. Some of the jokes she makes did come across as more in line with someone older than her (rather than 29, someone closer to if not over 40). Still, that didn’t ruin her narration, and I found her old-fashioned quaint and endearing. Her voice is certainly engaging as I was thoroughly absorbed by her narration.
I would have liked for one of the side characters to be less of an ‘Inventing Anna’ type of figure as it was fairly predictable and the misdirection takes up a lot of the story for no reason. The mystery was interesting but the resolution was painfully anticlimactic. The culprit was painfully obvious and I really hoped that the author would subvert my expectations by not making them the killer. Their motivations are…kind of missing? I didn’t buy into their ‘reasons’, as it seemed a huge leap to go from ‘that’ to murder. The ending did feel rushed to the point that it lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. We also get chapters that are the equivalent of insta posts or lives about Desiree and they did absolutely 0 for the story. I wish we could have had chapters giving us glimpses into the sisters’ childhoods as that would have added depth and nuance to their relationship.
Still, I did have a fairly fun time with this as it was a quick and gripping read/listen. I would definitely read more by this author!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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Sunset by Jessie Cave

“When I next love someone, they will die suddenly, unfairly, quickly, oddly, suspiciously, horrifyingly, traumatically; they’ll die in the worst way that someone could, and I will have to stand by and watch, take a photo.”

Funny, raw, heartbreaking, Sunset is an exceptional debut novel. Jessie Cave’s unsparing portrayal of grief in all of its complexities is striking for its realism and depth. Cave’s blend of humor and tragedy did bring to mind Fleabag and I would definitely recommend fans of that show, or I May Destroy You for that matter, to pick this up. The novel is narrated by Ruth who is in her mid-20s and leading a rather directionless lifestyle. Her older sister, Hannah, is very much her anchor and the two share an intense bond. Rather than resorting to the classic good/bad sister type of characterisation Cave makes both Ruth and Hannah into multidimensional and entirely authentic people, who have flaws and idiosyncrasies as well as many other qualities. The two love each other to bits, even if they bicker a lot. They are best friends, each other’s worlds, really. The two go on a summer holiday together and a horrific accident happens to leave Ruth bereft. She attempts to shut other people out and begins working at a Costa in Heathrow airport. As time goes by Ruth is forced to confront what happened on that holiday.

There is so much that I loved about this novel. Ruth is a wonderful narrator. Her anger, loneliness, grief, numbness, frustration, and sadness are depicted with such heart and realism as to bring her character to life. Her sense of humor, occasionally dark, always weird, made me laugh out loud and like her almost instantly. Some of her thoughts may very well make you uncomfortable but I appreciated how honest Ruth’s voice was. Her relationship with her sister is the central aspect of her story and their dynamic was wonderful and heart-rending. From their small habits to the way they speak to others or each other, Cave captures everything about them, making Ruth and Hannah feel less like fictional characters than real-life individuals.
I also loved the way Cave portrays and discusses things like depression, death, sex, menstruations, and other things that are usually sensationalised or romanticised or completely glossed over. In addition, Ruth’s narrative is full of piercing observations about other people or her own life. I also found that those references to ‘real’ places (such as Costa, Tesco, WHSmith) made Ruth’s London all the more vivid.
It’s impressive that this is Cave’s debut as it is such an accomplished novel. Her prose is self-assured, her tone is consistent, and her characterisation is phenomenal. Cave’s depiction of grief and sisterhood is moving and believably messy.
At first, I wasn’t sure about the way the dialogue is laid out (it appears in a script-like way) but I soon grew accustomed to it and I commend Cave for her choice (rather than jumping on the no quotation marks bandwagon). Speaking of dialogues, these too are marvellously realistic. The exchanges Ruth has with others could be funny, awkward, and/or tense. Regardless of the nature of the discussion or conversation, Cave’s dialogues rang true-to-life.
Sunset is a bittersweet love story between two sisters that is bound to make you tear up and laugh out loud (often in quick succession). If you happen to like stories that focus on sibling bonds or that follow the experiences of directionless millennials, well, consider giving Sunset a shot.
To sum it up: I loved this review so much one day after reading my netgalley copy I popped into waterstones during my lunch break and bought a hardback edition of it.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the last few weeks I’ve read two works by Oyeyemi (Peaces and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours) and what I liked most about them was how funny, inventive, and unapologetically queer they were. So, naturally, I was somewhat surprised and saddened to discover that Boy, Snow, Bird lacks any of those qualities. I can’t honestly say that Boy, Snow, Bird has any real strengths. There are far more superior books out there examining race in the 1950s and 1960s America, such as ReginaPorter’s The Travelers, and to call this novel a Snow White retelling seems overarching. While Oyeyemi does incorporate within her narrative certain recognizable fairy tale motifs—mean stepmothers who hate their angelic stepdaughters, magical mirrors and or reflections—the story she recounts struck me as painfully prosaic. We have a vague, and unconvincing, historical setting, cardboard characters, and an uneventful storyline that drags on too long.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one and three are narrated by Boy. She’s white and the daughter of a pest exterminator who she often refers to as ‘the rat catcher’. In a manner reminiscent of Dickens and She Who Shall Not Be Named, Oyeyemi gives her characters names, or nicknames, that convey their personality or profession. I may sound overly critical here but why do characters whose professions are often openly looked down upon—janitors, cleaners, pest exterminators, etc.—are so frequently cast in the role of sinister and/or obsessive creeps? I mean, just because someone whose job requires them to kill rats doesn’t mean they have to be ‘unstable’ and rat-obsessed (this guy makes rat noises and is apt to go off on anti-rat rants). Anyhow, this rat catcher is horrible through-and-through. He treats Boy in a rather appalling way and understandably she decides to run off once she’s done with high school. She ends up finding a job (what that was i cannot recall) and eventually becomes involved with a man named Arturo who is entirely void of a personality. This man has a daughter called Snow who is biracial, and Boy decides to exile her. Why? I can’t say for sure. It seemed that Boy found Snow’s ‘goodness’ grating or felt threatened by her.
Boy and Arturo have a child together, Bird. Part two is narrated by her and it mostly consists of a series of boring episodes. She exchanged letters with Snow, who she has never met. Whether they got on or not, I have no idea. Their responses to each other’s letters were almost jarring. There is an attempt at exploring doubleness but the story never has anything interesting on this matter.
We then return to Boy who has nothing really interesting to say.

Up to this point, it was safe to say that I did not care for this novel. The characters were dull, poorly developed. Our mains were very one-note and their voices failed to elicit any strong emotions in me. The secondary characters are barely there, and most of the male characters—regardless of their age—blurred together. We also have that one Italian character who just has to say ‘cara’ this and ‘cara’ that. Ffs. Still, I would not have discouraged others from attempting to read it as this could have easily been one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cases but then Oyeyemi drops a rather unpleasant surprise near the end.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Turns out that the ‘rat catcher’, turns out his name is Frank, who up to now has been portrayed as this abusive possibly ‘deranged’ villain, is a trans man. Frank is Boy’s mother. Frank used to be a gay woman who was raped and became pregnant with Boy. After this traumatic experience Frank ‘became’ trans: “You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. ”
Leaving aside the fact that Frank’s ‘story’ is recounted by someone who keeps misgendering and deadnaming them (this story is set in the 50s and 60s after all), I find this whole ‘reveal’ to be a poor choice indeed. Not only does the story imply that victims of sexual abuse cannot ever recover (which, unfortunately, sometimes happens to be true but here it struck me as intentionally sensational) but they will inevitably become abusers themselves. Which, yikes. Can we not? And don’t get me started on the whole ‘woman wanting to escape womanhood by becoming a man + lesbians becoming men because of trauma and the patriarchy’ terfy combo. Fuck sake. And to make your one trans character into an unhinged abuser is decidedly questionable.

To prospective readers of this book: I would like to dissuade you. Give this one a wide berth. Oyeyemi has written far better, and certainly a lot less dubious, things, so I recommend you check those out instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

Riding the coattails of Little Fires Everywhere and The Vanishing Half, What’s Mine and Yours not only tells a blow-by-blow predictable tale but one that failed to entertain or elicit any feeling other than frustration in this particular reader. What’s Mine and Yours, ya basic.

To call the writing in this novel ‘prose’ seems misleading as this is some of the most lifeless writing that I have ever come across. That is not to say that it is bad or terrible but dio mio, does it lack heart (if someone had told me that this book was written by an ai i would have believed them). Anyway, as you might have already guessed, I did not like this book. In fact, it really really really irritated me. The only reason why I persevered was that I listened to the audiobook which is superbly narrated by the one and only Bahni Turpin (had it not been for her i would have dnfed this).

As with any other of my negative reviews, I encourage those who want to read this book to check out some more positive opinions. Do keep in mind that the summary is extremely misleading. The school integration is not the focus of the novel, merely a plot device to further the drama between the characters and create some tension for our star-crossed lovers.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives
✓The opening chapter. It has the most fleshed-out character in the whole novel who for reasons does not make a single appearance after that.

Negatives
✕ Story & Structure
This novel gives a halfhearted attempt at a non-linear/multiple perspectives kind of narrative but unlike The Travellers it clearly favours certain povs and timelines over others. So while the summary will have you think that the story pivots around in particular on the school integration, well it does not. The chapters set in 2018, years after the integration has taken place, are the real focus of this novel, and jeez, how dull they were. There present readers with some dull family drama, three cardboard cut sisters (the gay one, the wannabe celebrity one, and the one who is having marriage problems and wants children). There is an attempt to make a character’s identity into a big reveal but it was obvious who they were from the very start. So, structure-wise, this novel sucks. Why implement multiperspectives’ if you are mainly sticking with two characters? The non-linear timeline adds nothing to the story, as it fails to build suspense or give a sense of mystery to certain events. The story attempts to touch upon topical & serious issues but it ultimately fails to deliver a substantial exploration of race, class, identity, and motherhood, opting instead for a very superficial social commentary that is chock full of platitudes.

✕ Characters
The characters were either lazy caricatures or reduced to one single characteristic. While I was reading I asked someone what they envisioned when I said ‘Lacey May’ and they made a face. And that’s basically it. Lacey May is the kind of character you are not meant to like. Fair enough, as I am more than able to enjoy books with dislikable characters….as long as they are given some nuance or depth. Lacey May…is portrayed as a shrill, bigoted, ‘i’m not a racist but’, self-centred white woman who is so OTT she gave me a bloody headache. Do people like her exist? Probably yes. Do I want to read pages and pages from her perspective that kind of try to humanise her but not really? No. Fuck no. How about no fucking thanks. I found Noelle to be just as unsympathetic (so you have a deadbeat father, boohoo, join the club). She has no real personality and is mainly defined by the fact that she is Lacey May’s daughter. Gee, who is Black and one of the students who ends up at Noelle’s mostly white fancy high school, is very much sidelined in favour of drama between Noelle and her mother.

✕ Sex scenes
There was an odd amount of sex scenes that…why? They were either incredibly cheesy or just plain wtf: “He was still her husband, she his wife. They moved together for a short time. It was all liquid and soft muscle, a warm mess. ” Give me a break. We even get a scene in which Gee is masturbating and…what did that add to his story? The guy already doesn’t get enough page time and you are wasting what little he has on a scene where he masturbates? Because of course, that’s what teen boys do!

✕ Low-key problematic
I am so sick of stories that punish characters who have abortions. Here that character later in life has a miscarriage and wants children but can’t have them. She eventually does have a child but with another man and after a period of cheesy self-reflection in which she confronts the ‘ghosts’ from her past.
I was also not a fan of the gay rep in this book. It had a vague hint of ‘the token gay’.

This is the book equivalent of a soap opera. It was full of clichés (married man goes to france eats croissants and has an affair with a younger woman), unnecessary melodrama involving Lacey May and her daughters, and it felt vaguely moralistic (especially the way the abortion/miscarriage were handled). The uber generic writing, as previously mentioned, was not to my taste.
This is the kind of novel that seems to have been ‘made’ with book clubs in mind. So, if you are a fan of Jojo Moyes and Kristin Hannah, chances are you’ll like it more than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy opens with a bang only to come screeching to halt within a few pages. What could have been an intriguing tale of espionage is thwarted by lacklustre execution: painfully slow pacing, watching-paint-dry levels of entertainment, cardboard characters, robotic narration, dry dialogues, heavy on the telling…
Aside from its snazzy cover & title, and that brief mention of Nella Larsen’s Passing, I sadly didn’t like anything about this novel.

In American Spy a Black female former FBI intelligence agent is recounting to her sons—whom she addresses as ‘you’—her experiences growing up in the Queens, working for the FBI—a notoriously white and male ‘club’—and her time as a spy. The storyline is rather meandering. We learn of Marie’s childhood, how her mother left her and her older sister in her father’s care, her beginnings at the FBI….by the time we meet her ‘target’, Thomas Sankara, who was the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, we are nearly at the halfway mark, and by then I had grown already bored by Marie monotone narration.

I found Marie, our protagonist, vexing. Her narration is bogged down by exposition. Marie explains things to death. Her detailing of office politics is lifeless. I never gained an impression of how she felt about anything really, especially about her feelings towards the FBI or her work as a spy or even Sankara. She spends most of the story telling her children (and us) how great she was at her job, at reading people’s ‘faces’, and playing mind games. But in actuality, she’s pretty bad at it.
The author’s blending of family drama and a tale of political espionage is unconvincing, uneven, boring. The themes and issues the novel touches upon had potential—race, gender, the Cold War, America meddling in foreign countries—but I just felt extremely removed from all of it. I actively disliked the main character, Sankara does not emerge as a charismatic leader, he is a vague impression of a real-life figure, and the other characters seem to fit too neatly in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, the lbgtq+ rep, however peripheral to the narrative, was somewhat questionable, and the ending was extremely anticlimactic. In some ways the story cuts off before things actually start happening. This book is all build-up, no pay off.

I read American Spy a few days ago and much about it has already faded from my mind. While I was not expecting this to be an action-driven spy novel, I was nevertheless disappointed by its atrocious pacing and bland storytelling.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

“I thought a polished appearance and stellar behavior would be the passport to belonging. And when I inevitably failed at perfection, I could at least wilfully do everything in my power to be kicked out before anyone left me.”

tw: eating disorders

Bursting with sharp humor and insight Yolk is a bighearted and profoundly honest novel. Never have I ever felt so understood and seen by a book. I have become used to eating disorders, bulimia especially, either being made into punchlines or sensationalised (i am looking at you Milk Fed). So, understandably I have become weary of reading books with main characters who have an ED. And then, lo and behold, Yolk.

There is so much to love about this novel. First, our narrator, Jayne Baek. She’s a listless twenty-year-old Korean-American college student who lives in an illegal sublet in New York. She shares the apartment with Jeremy, a polyamorous white guy she sort of had a relationship with. Not only is Jeremy scrounging off Jayne—over the course of a few months he only paid his half of the rent once—but he also gets her to help him with his ‘projects’. Although Jayne hangs out with other people, she keeps others at length, partly out of fear of being rejected, partly because she doesn’t want people to inspect her life too closely. Out of the blue, her older sister June shows up. June has a high-paying finance job, lives by herself in a swanky apartment, and, unlike Jayne, seems to have her shit together. The two sisters are not on the best of terms and in spite of living in the same city they have not seen each other for two years. Although Jayne isn’t keen on making amends with her sister, her world is upended by the news that June has been diagnosed with uterine cancer. What follows is a heartfelt tale navigating the fraught relationship between Jayne and June.

Jayne’s voice is incredibly authentic. She could be petty, silly, and cold. She’s also deeply insecure. Jayne wants to desperately leave her childhood and teenage years in Texas behind and tries to do so by barely keeping in touch with her family. She’s never been able to fully transcend the linguistic, cultural, and generational divides between her and her parents, which has caused her to feel at a remove from them. When June barges into her life Jayne isn’t all that happy. On the one hand, she finds June dorky, embarrassing even. On the other, she’s ashamed—of lousy Jeremy, the crappy apartment she’s living in, her ‘lack’ of success, and her ED. Because of this, June and Jayne’s ‘reconciliation is not smooth. Rarely have I come across such a realistic portrayal of siblings. When it comes to sisters especially creators/authors usually are rather lazy in terms of their characterization: one of them is good the other one is bad, or one of them is beautiful and the other is a ‘plain jane’, or one of them is outgoing and the other one serious (you get the gists). Choi does not confine June and Jayne to such narrow roles. They are both struggling in their own ways, they are capable of getting under each other’s skin (in record amounts of time) as no other person can yet their shared upbringing, or history if you will, also means that they ‘get’ each other. The dynamic between them felt incredibly authentic. From their arguments, which vacillated between being playful and serious, to those quieter moments between them. Speaking of arguments, Choi writes some of the most realistic arguments that I have ever read. Usually, arguments in books/tv shows/films have this scripted quality to them (they either don’t seem very spontaneous or they seem to build up gradually reaching a crescendo that ends with the people involved going their separate ways or breaking up or whatnot). Here instead the fights between June and Jayne are far more true-to-life. Sometimes they can momentarily defuse the tension between them, or sometimes their arguing reignites after a moment of calm.
Choi excels at dialogues in general. I particularly loved the banter and flirting between June and Patrick.

While the narrative does focus a lot on the love/hate bond between June and Jayne, Yolk is very much about Jayne and her relationship with herself and her body. I really appreciated the way Choi handled Jayne’s ED. While readers know that she has an ED, we only know know towards the end of the novel. I thought this was both clever and extremely thoughtful on Choi’s part. Clever because it is indicative of Jayne’s self-denial. While Jayne knows that has an ED she doesn’t want to really think about what this means. I used to rationalize my ED by treating my bulimia as a necessary step towards ‘thinness’. I knew deep down that what I was doing was definitely not healthy, but I trained my brain into thinking that it was just another part of my daily routine. So, Jayne’s denial really resonated with me. I could also really relate to Jayne’s attitude towards perfection as I too have the bad habit of abandoning things if I don’t get good enough results.
The romance between Jayne and Patrick was this great combination of cute and realistic. Their chemistry was sweet, and I loved their moments together.
Jayne’s narration is full of cultural references which made her environment(s) all the more real. I did struggle with the fashion brands as I happen to be fashion-backwards.

Yolk is a real beauty of a novel. It was funny, moving, whip-smart, and brutally honest.
If you are looking for a more mature YA novel that explores sisterhood, mental health, love, heartbreak, and Korean-American identity, look no further (I just finished this and I already want to re-read it).

Confession time: I actually didn’t think that I would like this novel. A few years ago I tried reading Permanent Record but I wasn’t vibing with it and ended up DNFing it and writing a high-key mean review (which I have now deleted and feel really shitty about posting in the first place). Choi please accept my apologies. As Madonna once said: Je suis désolé, lo siento, ik ben droevig, sono spiacente, perdóname.

my rating: ★★★★★

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